By Steven DuBois, Associated Press writer
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Portland voters will decide in May whether to add fluoride to the city’s drinking water.
The Portland City Council voted 3-1 Thursday to move up the date of a public referendum that had been set for May 2014. Supporters of the action said it’s important to have the issue settled quickly because Portland children, particularly those from low-income families, have high rates of tooth decay.
“There is no time to waste,” said Commissioner Nick Fish, who approved the measure along with Mayor Sam Adams and Commissioner Randy Leonard.
The council in September unanimously approved a plan to add fluoride by March 2014. Until the vote, Portland was the largest city in the U.S. yet to approve water fluoridation to combat tooth decay.
Opponents, however, quickly gathered more than 30,000 signatures to force a referendum. Under city rules, May 2014 was the earliest date for the election unless the council decided it was in the public interest to schedule an earlier vote.
Kim Kaminski, director of the anti-fluoridation group Clean Water Portland, criticized the decision to speed up the election, saying the council’s “calculated” move leaves the group with insufficient time to educate voters on the cons of adding the mineral to a water supply that serves about 900,000 people.
“There’s not enough time for sufficient public debate on an issue that is so important,” she said before the 3 1/2-hour hearing. “We are talking about our water. What’s the rush?”
Opponents of public fluoridation contend it is unsafe and violates an individual’s right to consent to medication.
Members of Clean Water Portland called for an independent scientific review of the latest research so voters can make an informed decision. They said a panel of experts would need more than a few months to adequately investigate the safety of fluoridation.
“This is not a sound-bite issue, but it’s been made into a sound-bite issue,” fluoride opponent Rick North said. “It’s complex, and it’s far-reaching.”
Dental and public health professionals told the council there was no need for additional scientific review because the subject has been studied for decades. Seventy-three percent of the U.S. population drinks water treated with fluoride — more than three times the rate in Oregon.
Mel Rader, project director for Upstream Public Health, displayed a stack of studies during his testimony. He said the research found no evidence that fluoride, at proper levels, does anything more than harden teeth to make them resistant to decay.
“The calls for more science are designed to delay, not deepen our debate,” he said.
Portland’s drinking water already contains naturally occurring fluoride, though not at levels considered to be effective at fighting cavities.
Voters in Portland twice rejected fluoridation before approving it in 1978. That plan was overturned before any fluoride was ever added to the water.
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